Lee commissioners OK sweeping changes that would affect mining

Lee County commissioners agreed to send sweeping changes in land-use regulations to the state for review Thursday, regulations that would place some areas in southeast Lee off-limits for limerock mining.

Commissioners left some issues for later, like whether a wetland baseline map for restoration based on a 1953 aerial photograph would become a regulatory tool or be used purely for planning.

“That’s a very, very key issue,” said Neale Montgomery, a local attorney with clients in the area.

The changes focus on the 83,000-acre Density Reduction Groundwater Resource area south of State Road 82 and east of Interstate 75. New mines would be shoved toward the Alico Road corridor, with mines farther east along Corkscrew Road prohibited, at least until the 2030 planning horizon.

The new plan provides incentives for landowners who lose the right to mine the valuable rock. They include the right to cluster the one home for every 10 acres currently permitted there in so-called rural villages.

It also would create a Transfer of development Rights program. That would allow landowners to take the home-building rights off land targeted for preservation and move them into pre-determined development locations.

Under current rules about 6,000 homes could be built in the DRGR. Commissioners on Thursday approved creating 3,000 more, for a total of 9,000, as long as they are transferred to areas already affected by agricultural uses or located along existing roadways.

Many mine and landowner representatives left feeling shorted. Attorney Beverly Grady represents the owners of the Bell Road Mine south of State Road 82. Commissioners refused to add the property, where currently fill dirt is being mined, to the limerock area map.

“I don’t know how the state’s going to feel about adopting a map that removes a use from thousands of acres of that’s such a valuable resource,” she said. “But this is a transmittal.”

The proposed changes will be transmitted to the Florida Department of Community Affairs, where planners will review them for consistency with state goals and objectives. A state report will come to commissioners, who will then vote whether to make the changes.

County planning chief Paul O’Connor said that adoption hearing might take place as soon as March.

The proposed amendments are the culmination of years of work that included a year-long moratorium on new mine zoning during 2008. There is much at stake, with limerock mines able to produce profits of $100 million for every section — 640 acres — of land mined.

On the other side, commissioners weigh disruption of the quiet lifestyles of the roughly 300 households in the DRGR, truck traffic on Corkscrew Road and potential mine impacts on the water table and the environment.

Mine consultants argued this week those impacts are overblown or non-existent, claiming reclaimed mine lakes provide habitat teeming with fish and wildlife.

Virtually every environmental and civic group active in south Lee supports the changes.

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